When I entered Rutgers University, I thought, “This is the beginning of the rest of my life.” Little did I know that virtually my entire college career I would be battling cancer.
I was sick and had mono symptoms at least twice a month my entire freshman year, developed a lump on my neck the fall semester of my sophomore year, and after a surgery to remove the lump, was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. I just turned 20 and I had cancer. I thought my life was over. I kept thinking, “What was I going to do about school?”
I couldn’t pull it together for a couple hours until something clicked and my emotional state took a 180. I realized, why am I going to sit here crying and thinking about everything that was wrong? I’m going to wake up tomorrow and still have cancer, so its time to move on and focus on continuing life and getting better. I went back to school that night and was in the library studying. I knew that I needed to strive for normalcy, or whatever the new normal was going to be. The next day I emailed my professors, dropped a class, fought for parking, and went on disability.
The following week, I was back and forth between Rutgers and doctor appointments. I received a PET scan, had blood tests, and met with an oncologist. We made a plan but I realized it didn’t include storing my eggs. I was reading about all the side effects of the treatment, but the only one that truly stuck out was the small chance that I could be left infertile. I could deal with losing my hair and the nausea, but I could not jeopardize my ability to have kids and I wasn’t going to let cancer take that from me. I went through fertility treatment to store my eggs, got a port put in, and went through months of chemotherapy while still continuing the semester at school.
I had my ABVD treatment every other Tuesday and then went to class. My friends would always come with me and we would bring snacks and have a “chemo party.” I wanted to make the best of the hours we sat there, and the time always flew by. By July 30, 2013, I was in remission. I was bald and exhausted all the time, but this was my new normal.
My junior year I was playing catch up with classes. I turned 21, and was getting back on track. Around finals, my blood results started coming back funny but my doctor told me not to worry so I didn't. I returned to Rutgers for my senior year, ran my first half marathon that November, and then my blood test came back funny again. I started having pain in my neck and my collarbone but I was finally set to graduate on time so I went back to school and ignored the pain. Then one day I felt my neck. My heart dropped. I felt that same lump that I felt two years ago. I knew it was back.
How could this happen again? And why now when I'm in my last semester of my senior year? I met with a new oncologist, Dr. Goy at the John Theurer Cancer Center, and the first thing he told me was we were going fix it and you're going to graduate on time. We came up with a tentative treatment plan and started the first step immediately.
I realized that I would do what ever it took to go on spring break, to run that half marathon, and to enjoy my last semester and graduate on time. I went back on disability, notified my professors, and made it clear to Rutgers that they were going to accommodate me. I went out that night and also promised myself that I would not sacrifice my senior year for cancer. Cancer would not have that power.
The first time I was diagnosed, my best friend told me “You can’t control the cards you are dealt, but you get to control how you play them.” Having cancer once was the last thing I could think of happening let alone having it twice, but I did and there was nothing I could do about that part. What I could do is stay positive and battle it my way. I was still going to do everything I had planned and think of cancer as just a bump in the road.
We made a plan, and I started on Brentuxiamab every three weeks. I still went away on spring break, ran the half marathon, and graduated on time. I finished that part of treatment and it turned out, my cancer was still spreading. I knew cancer was life threatening, but this was the first time it really felt like it.
We decided to try a different chemo regime called the ICE treatment, which meant we were bringing in the big guns. Luckily, my doctor and I decided that I could be the first person at Hackensack University Medical Center to try this as an outpatient. After three cycles, it was successful and we were at where we wanted to be. We could then move on to preparing for a stem cell transplant.
This was what I have been working up to and have been nervous about. I checked into the hospital and received six days of high dose chemo and the next day the stem cell transplant. I stayed in the hospital for an additional two weeks until my body started making new white blood cells. I left the hospital knowing that the hardest part was over. Shortly after, I received radiation for about a month and on November 30, 2015 I was officially in remission.
I didn’t have the traditional four years of college, but despite cancer I had the best four years of my life. I never let cancer stop me from accomplishing everything I wanted to. I graduated on time with a B.A. in Economics, a B.A. in Communication, and a minor in business administration. I ran two half marathons and plan to run a marathon one day soon. I have a job in New York City that I absolutely love. I am very involved in The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society as well as other nonprofits to combat cancer. I finally have my health and I never stopped living my life during cancer, but I definitely am excited to continuing living my life without it!
I closed the chapter in my life of having cancer and opened a new one, taking my cancer experience to better myself, to help others battle it, and to find a cure. Having cancer will always be a part of me, not as a bad thing, but as something that drives me to accomplish everything and more that I want to.
Kelly Miragliotta lives in Pompton Lakes, NJ with her parents, sister, brother and two dogs. She now works as a customer success manager in New York City and a social media consultant.